Ballance enhances international credentials
England Lions 269 for 7 (Ballance 104, Ali 61, Lyon 3-80) v Australians
Gary Ballance enhanced his international credentials with a stylish century against the Australians on a rain-affected first day in Northampton, where Nathan Lyon was the pick of a weakened attack.
Lyon enjoyed working against an England Lions order stacked with left-handers and collected 3 for 80, but he was unable to curb the influence of Ballance, who was out late in the day for 104.
The first session was lost to drizzle but a clear and sunny afternoon meant that 77 overs were still possible and Ballance used them to show that Yorkshire's production line of young batsmen extends beyond Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow. Ballance had scored two centuries already this month, 112 against Warwickshire in the County Championship and 139 against Unicorns in the Yorkshire Bank 40, and here he looked the most accomplished of the England Lions batsmen.
Whereas the rest of the left-handers struggled against the away spin of Lyon, Ballance was less inclined to drive early and worked his way into form while waiting for the bad balls. He was strong when driving off the back foot - one such punch to the boundary brought up his half-century off Mitchell Starc - and drove down the ground against Ashton Agar, raising his hundred with his only six, a slog over midwicket from Steven Smith from his 153rd delivery.
But next ball Ballance fell in a not dissimilar style to Chris Rogers in the Lord's Test, missing a Smith full toss that the umpire adjudged would have gone on and hit the stumps. It was the second wicket Smith claimed with a rank full toss, after Jos Buttler on 7 sent one down the throat of Lyon at deep midwicket. Smith finished with 2 for 8 from two overs but his figures were far more attractive than his bowling, which was only used late in the day.
The presence of Starc and James Faulkner as the only seamers in Australia's attack meant that spin was the main order of the day and Lyon was used the most. After David Warner was brought on as first change, sending down some ordinary slow-medium seam-up offerings, the stand-in captain Shane Watson turned to Lyon and he was immediately effective, finding an edge from Alex Lees that was put down by Watson at first slip.
Lees was on 16 at the time but the miss wasn't too costly; on 33 he again edged Lyon and this one was taken by Watson, the first of three catches at slip that he claimed off Lyon's bowling. Lyon, who drifted the ball in from around the wicket and extracted some turn and bounce, was also unlucky not to have Moeen Ali caught at point on 15 when an edgy drive appeared to fall just short of Warner.
Lyon picked up his second wicket when Eoin Morgan launched a loose drive outside off and edged to Watson on 5, but that brought together Moeen and Ballance, who added 70 for the fourth wicket. Moeen looked nervous early against the ball turning away but was happier when Ashton Agar came on, lofting him over long-on for six before boosting his confidence further with a classy sweep for six off Lyon.
Moeen brought up his half-century with a flick through the leg side off Agar, who struggled to find the right line, bowling to a leg-side heavy field against the left-handers, and did little to enhance his chances of a return for the fifth Test at The Oval. In the end it was pace that accounted for Moeen, who on 61 edged Starc to second slip just after tea, providing the second wicket for the seamers after opener Luke Wells had earlier prodded tamely and edged Faulkner behind for 10.
Moeen's departure brought Ben Stokes to the crease to join Ballance and Stokes played a couple of impressive strokes, including a back-foot drive for four off Faulkner, but he did not give himself a chance of going on when Lyon returned to the attack. The first ball that Stokes faced from Lyon he tried an expansive drive through the off side and edged to Watson at first slip for 19.
Lyon finished with three wickets and had a couple of other close calls, including when a diving Smith at midwicket couldn't grasp a very tough chance off Buttler. On a greenish-tinged pitch that offered a little sideways movement but not much pace, Starc and Faulkner provided few seriously challenging deliveries to the England Lions' batsmen, which might encourage the Australian batting order ahead of the second day's play.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here